The best Chinese dictionaries have so much to offer that it’s hard to choose between them (although online Mandarin dictionaries could still do a lot more).
It might not be hardest language in the world, but Mandarin is certainly difficult to learn, so Chinese dictionaries really have to have an excellent combination of features and content in order to be useful.
1. nciku is probably the best Chinese dictionary
In my view, nciku is the best online Mandarin dictionary. It offers pretty much every feature that other dictionaries do, plus some extras. The automated audio-generation is a mixed blessing, though, and it tends to be quite slow to load.
PROS of nciku:
- Very comprehensive and detailed - it even has obscure scientific or technical jargon, and has masses of example sentences.
- More search options; the handwriting recognition is fantastic, and you can search by radical as you would in a paper dictionary.
- Nicely designed and compatible with many browsers.
- Offers community and other online-learning features.
CONS of nciku
- Can be prone to technical glitches. In Firefox, for example, the nciku search overrides Firefox’s search box, forcing you to close the tab to use Firefox search.
- Sometimes the example sentences are not as well-researched as they should be. John Pasden covers this at Sinosplice: incorrect nciku example sentences.
- The automatic audio-generation is quite useful, but it might be better to hear real recordings of individual words.
- It really can be slow to load, or not load at all sometimes.
2. MDBG is also very good
PROS of MDBG
- Nice, clean interface that loads quickly and is easy to navigate.
- Skritter integration! You can add vocabulary to your Skritter lists directly from MDBG definition pages.
- Handwriting recognition that works very well.
- Has some useful guides and mini-tools alongside the dictionary.
- Firefox search option.
CONS of MDBG
- Not as comprehensive as nciku, nor as detailed as YellowBridge.
- It also lacks some of the extra features of other online dictionaries.
- The handwriting recognition doesn’t load instantly like nciku’s, and isn’t so well-integrated into the interface.
3. YellowBridge is a third option for online Mandarin dictionaries
The YellowBridge website may be a bit of an antique, but the content is excellent. The features are as numerous as nciku’s, with a few differences. However, a clunky interface and bad compatibility knocks this to third place for me.
PROS of YellowBridge
- Gives phonetics for each character in Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. Brilliant!
- Extremely detailed in other ways; input methods, encoding, frequency and etymology are all there, plus much more.
- Good quality audio for characters and words.
- Has a lot of the functionality of Wenlin but you don’t have to pay a penny for it.
CONS of YellowBridge
- The interface really isn’t nice. It doesn’t display well in many browsers and is generally a bit garish.
- The handwriting recognition seems to work only in Internet Explorer, and even then it has to start and load a Java applet. nciku wins hands down here.
- No example sentences.
4. Oxford Chinese Dictionary is an excellent paper dictionary
Finally, a paper dictionary! I like this one because it’s big enough to be comprehensive but not so big that it’s too heavy to lug to lectures. As I do most of my study and work at a computer I don’t usually use a paper dictionary, but it’s still useful to have one and to know how to use it.
PROS of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary
- Very well researched; you’re not going to find a lot of errors or low-quality information here.
- You can take it with you!
- Comes with audio CD and has good example sentences and word relations; the online dictionaries don’t win here.
- Looking up words in a paper dictionary is good for your Chinese - you have to learn to recognise radicals and break characters down into their components.
CONS of the Oxford Chinese Dictionary
- It’s not free. This will cost you quite a lot of money, especially for the latest edition.
- Similarly, you have to buy a new edition if you want the latest content. The online dictionaries constantly update with new vocabulary.
- It’s slower and less convenient. This is the other side of the coin to it being good for your Chinese; you have to put some effort in.
5. Chinese Etymology can be useful sometimes
PROS of Chinese Etymology
- Brilliant etymologies for every character. These make effective mnemonics to improve your learning.
- Like YellowBridge, has good detail in every entry - various pronunciations, encodings and other useful information.
- Even has the developmental history of each character from seal script to the modern form.
CONS of Chinese Etymology
- Laughably old-fashioned website.
- Can only search single characters at a time. In many ways this prevents it even being a dictionary at all, but it gets into the list for being such a great source of mnemonics.
Why electronic dictionaries didn’t make the top 5
Whilst these little gadgets are extremely convenient and useful for reading non-digital texts (such as newspapers), the massive cost excluded them from the list. I don’t see that they’re six times as good as a paper dictionary, which they’d have to be to justify the price.
Also, because they make it so easy to look things up wherever you are, there’s less incentive to internalise the new vocabulary.
A good Chinese-Chinese dictionary
After you’ve been studying Mandarin a little while, it’s a great idea to switch to a Chinese-Chinese dictionary, or at least use one some of the time (I’d say it’s good to try and make the jump as soon as possible). A very good, modern and portable Chinese-Chinese dictionary is 现代汉语词典 (Xiandai Hanyu Cidian - ‘The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary’). It can be difficult to get a copy, but as usual Amazon is good, if a little pricey: The Contemporary Chinese Dictionary on Amazon UK.